Can there really be no silver lining to Brexit? Does it come with no opportunities of any kind whatsoever? Listen to many of the UK’s commentators and politicians and you might begin to think not – that the next two years odd of negotiation will result in nothing but misery.
I arrived horribly late to a panel discussion earlier this week and found myself walking into a room of people whose default position is exactly this. Sad faces all round. I found a seat and prepared to be irritated. Then a question from an audience member. Could the rather splendid panel – there were several huge brains on the stage – genuinely think of no upsides to Brexit? It is rare, said the speaker, for a political event to not have at least a few useful side effects.
They thought. Thought some more. And then came the good news: all but one of them could think of a few not just useful, but fabulous side effects. Those who believe that free trade drives growth think that being able to enter new trade agreements is helpful. It was agreed that with freedom to pursue our own trade objectives rather than those of 27 other countries, we can focus on getting freer trade in global services – the thing that really matters to us and that the EU, operating as our agent, has been particularly useless at.
Those interested in our historical role as an ideas machine are pleased to think that we will soon be able to open ourselves more to top-quality immigration from outside the EU. It is also worth noting, said one speaker, that our financial sector is as successful as it is because it is has such a liberal and open policy: the best people from around the world converge in London.
Finally, Brexit gives us an opportunity to rethink the pillars of our economy. For too long now we have relied on cheap labour to drive growth. This isn’t particularly satisfactory so the possibility that – if deprived of the EU as a source of that labour – the UK economy might finally see some productivity improvements is hardly a bad thing.
The Great Repeal Bill is a great opportunity to go through a mountain of legislation and decide what is and what isn’t necessary for the UK to be the economy we’d all like it to be. The key point, as another panellist said, is that Brexit has been a “shudder in our national life” and as such it gives us an opportunity to look afresh at everything – including things that may not be related to the EU.
This is thrilling stuff. The deeply disappointed are never going to be convinced that Brexit is the right path for the UK overall. But the fact that some of the most firm of them are starting to find, if not yet look on, the brighter side of Brexit, bodes pretty well for the future.